In response to a recent outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a health warning: get vaccinated. And since the outbreak is primarily affecting sexually active gay and bi men in the area, they are especially encouraging this population to do so.
Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis and is preventable and treatable, says the CDC, however, it can quickly become deadly — so prevention and early detection and treatment are key. The warning also stated that getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against meningococcal disease.
According to the CDC, the two most common types of meningococcal infections are meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord,) and bloodstream infection, both of which can end up fatal if untreated. Initially, the disease can cause flu-like symptoms which then rapidly worsen. These include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, confusion and rash.
Though it’s not officially considered an STI, it is quickly and easily spread through ‘close contact” due to it being primary transmitted via the mouth, nose, and throat. After a similar outbreak in New York City a few years back, we spoke with Dr. Thomas A. Clark, former epidemiology lead for CDC’s Meningitis and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Branch, about the particular concerns for gay and bi men around transmission.
“The bacteria is transmitted through secretions of the mouth, nose, and throat — large-sized droplets,” explained Dr. Clark. “What that means is the droplets are far too large to float in the air. So it’s the kind of thing you’re more likely to get from French kissing…or even sneezing, but regular aerosolized drops in sneezes won’t get you sick, it’s the larger droplets that do it. That’s why the warnings talked about ‘close contact.’ What they found was that people living together, even if they’re not in a romantic relationship, were at a ‘very high risk’ of contracting the disease from each other.”
“So oral sex isn’t going to transmit it, so long as your mouth doesn’t come into contact with anyone else’s saliva,” he adds. “The same goes for any other sex act, the key issue is your mouth, or nose, coming into contact with someone else’s saliva.”
The CDC warning is urging gay and bisexual men to get the MenACWY vaccine as soon as possible if they live in Florida. It also recommended that those planning to visit Florida talk with their health care provider about getting the vaccine.
In addition, it is urging college and university students, immunocompromised individuals (such as those living with HIV), and any men who have sex with men to get vaccinated against the disease immediately.
The MenACWY vaccine is widely available at clinics and pharmacies (such as Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid) nationwide. You can also ask your regular health care provider for a shot, or just Google “MenACWY vaccine near me.”